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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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Lack of PA press freedom an unreported story

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In her April 30 Toronto Star column (“Palestinian Authority keeps media under thumb”), Vivian Bercovici shines a light on an under-reported phenomenon in the Middle East: the contrast between Israel and the Palestinian Authority when it comes to press freedom.

For many journalists who report routinely from Israel and take the country’s open, democratic system for granted (the very reason they’re based in Israel in large numbers), this contrast is not “news” and thus garners little attention in the West. What sometimes does make news, however, are complaints about occasional constraints by Israeli authorities on their free access to conflict-driven stories involving the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s refusal to allow foreign correspondents entry into Gaza during the January 2009 war with Hamas is one example.

The Foreign Press Association (FPA), representing foreign correspondents based in Israel, lists numerous complaints against Israel’s security services for “harassment” of, and even “brutality” against, several of its members who try to cover disturbances in the West Bank. However, a former member of the FPA now reporting from the Arab world (who wishes to remain anonymous) said in a recent personal communication: “It’s possible that there are a few more incidents of harassment of journalists by Israeli forces, but one cannot overlook particularly arrogant and confrontational elements among certain [Palestinian] correspondents who also view themselves as activists… More importantly, I am sitting in a place now where I find out what real mistreatment of journalists is. They get beat up. They get arrested. They get killed.”

In other words, it’s important to put things in perspective. That’s precisely what Bercovici does in her Star piece.

She lists recent cases in which Palestinians received jail sentences for merely mocking PA President Mahmoud Abbas. She mentions, for instance, the case of a young “PA resident [who] was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a photograph of Abbas kicking a soccer ball with a silly caption: ‘Real Madrid’s New Striker.’”

That’s on the milder end of things in the PA, where intimidation, if not arrest, is par for the course. Not to be ignored are cases where foreign correspondents have been threatened for covering events the PA does not want exposed, such as the lynching of two IDF reservists in Ramallah in 2000 and scenes of Palestinians celebrating immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

It’s arguably worse, though, in Gaza under Hamas’ rule. As Bercovici notes, Hamas “is reported to have arrested dozens of journalists since coming to power in 2007, torturing and imprisoning some.” Bercovici interviewed Bassam Eid, founder and executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, who told her bluntly, “Freedom of the press never existed in Arab culture.”

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that’s described, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights, as enjoying “an independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system [which] combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press.” And yet it’s Israel that’s often scrutinized for what Bercovici, in a nice turn of phrase, calls “painstaking granularity.”

In an April 26 post on the Gatestone Institute’s website, Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh draws attention to what he calls a new phenomenon of Palestinian journalists declaring a state of hostility against their Israeli counterparts.

Speaking of double standards, he writes: “What is disturbing is that foreign journalists based in Israel have not come out against the campaign of [Palestinian] intimidation against their Israeli colleagues. Could it be because these foreign journalists have also been facing threats and want to stay on good terms with Palestinian reporters and will also agree to report only on ‘Palestinian suffering?’”

He concludes: “Today, there is a new generation of Palestinian journalists who have evidently been radicalized to a point where any meeting with an Israeli is being viewed as a ‘crime.’ This is the result of anti-Israel incitement by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, especially over the past two decades.”

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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